The vague role of ‘copywriter’

Digital may have blurred the copywriter's role, but Clare Barry explains how the trade is getting back to what it does best – getting people to buy things.

The role of copywriter has become increasingly murky in recent years. Even within my own agency, there are some hilarious, throwaway interpretations of my role. To some, I’m a creative. To others, I’m a “space filler.” Or a “content storydoer.” Some even see me as a personified dictionary, paid to relieve them of the need to Google how to spell a word.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Most of the time, when I tell normal (non-ad) people what my job is, I am met with one of two responses:

A) A blank stare, or

B) A sudden glazing of the eyeballs, accompanied by the comment, “So you like, trademark stuff?” (I do not do that.)

I’m a creative copywriter. Or a conceptual copywriter. Or an advertising copywriter. All are confusing (and potentially outdated) ways of referring to someone who writes down words better than other people.

I had no idea what a copywriter was when I became one. I don’t mean that facetiously — I literally had no idea what copywriters did, or that they even existed.
“So, you’re just a writer then — ”

Hold up, bucko. I’m not done.

I had no idea what a copywriter was when I became one. I don’t mean that facetiously — I literally had no idea what copywriters did, or that they even existed. I was just an oblivious youth, with a knack for making strangers hit the like button on Facebook…who had somehow stumbled into an agency.

During university, I realised that social media was starting to become serious. Social was making a jump at the time from personal to professional. Facebook pages didn’t exist yet, but big brands were starting to make waves, youthful brands were starting to go viral, and I noticed that small businesses were starting to look a bit, well, silly.

I’m part of the “guinea pig” generation of social. I grew up with the poison. I witnessed the birth (and death) of Myspace, the rise (and plateau) of Tumblr, the never-ending boom of Facebook, and the cult uprising of Instagram. I speak fluent meme (Me Gusta!), and even managed to write a 10,000-word dissertation about parody Twitter accounts @SoVeryBritish and @Queen_UK.

Yep. I found that much to say.

Anyway, dripping in youth and naivety, I saw opportunity in those small, vulnerable, typo-tweeting businesses. An opportunity to help them grow their business, yes, but moreover an opportunity to earn a shit-ton of money by doing what I perceived to be very little. Social came naturally to me…so this would be a walk in the park.

One by one, I located every company in a 50-mile radius with fewer than 500 followers on Twitter. (I’m somewhat obsessive.) I emailed, and emailed, and emailed, and to my delight, I learned that small business owners were way, way, way too busy to do their own social media. Not only that, they had no idea what the hell they were supposed to do with it. Social media was a complicated, alien world they frankly wanted no part of. Most were all too happy to chuck £70 per week (oh, my pitiful rate) at some kid with the balls to say:

“Hey, I don’t mean to be rude, but your company tweets like the town imbecile. Want some help?”

Before I knew it, I had clients in Asia and was staying up until 3 a.m. for Skype meetings — which mostly involved nodding and smiling, as they barely spoke a word of English. As it happened, tweeting “professionally” was not the “making £90 an hour from my smartphone, while getting my nails done” dream ride I had imagined.

Dripping in youth and naivety, I saw opportunity among those small, vulnerable, typo-tweeting businesses.

In fact, back then, people were used to brands posting several times a day. Once you take on several decent-sized brands at that rate (with three or more platforms each), social media quickly turns into a 24-hour job, a crash course in customer-complaint handling, a degree in translating broken English, and one hell of a learning curve in what will grab someone’s attention. Don’t get me started on the hard life lessons a 20-year-old girl must learn regarding “people who say they will pay” versus “people who actually pay.” Poor, stupid, young Copy Clare. God bless your naive heart.

Either way, one account eventually led to another…which led to another…which led to me asking the boss of my weekend bar job to hire me as an in-house social executive (yup), which led to a job at a magazine (climbing) — and then one day, I emailed an agency.

No idea why. I didn’t have a bloody clue what they actually did.

Long story short, their copywriter (who had 10 years of experience) decided to leave the agency. So they took a chance on the kid who had wandered in by accident.

I’ve always said there’s no better way to learn than a baptism by fire — and that’s exactly what I got. My first job was a corporate brochure, which hilariously took me five days to write. My second job? Three trade brochures for white goods, in all their glorious, technical detail. That took less time, but Christ, was I stressed. Flyers, websites, social schedules, adverts, taglines, pitches, and scripts all flew at me at speed — and God’s honest truth? I was shit. But when you start, you always are.

I knew I was shit, however, which was a godsend. I can’t stand being shit at anything, so I knew I had to get better — and at record speed. I read every book I could get my hands on, pored over what other agencies were doing, spent every moment eavesdropping on other staff members, listened to podcasts, watched talks on YouTube from the copywriting deities, and much more.

Eventually, I got better, mostly through making blunders at extreme speed. Now, I’m “Senior Conceptual Copywriter.” (For people who are paid to give things precise, concise names, we haven’t really mastered job titles.)

As far as I’m concerned, copywriting and content writing are two completely different things. In fact, in my opinion, digital has bastardised the meaning of copywriting everywhere.

“Copywriter” has become a general term for people who write words for “content” — which isn’t exactly true, but isn’t exactly untrue. It is the result of the internet bastardising the job title. Copywriting, in its traditional sense, is the art of describing things in a way that makes other people want to have them. I describe my own copywriting as an “alchemy of good literacy, a slightly bonkers imagination, and an acute understanding of human nature and its intense need to acquire more things.” Copywriting is manipulative, high pressure, go big or go home. It’s everything from 1950s cigarette adverts to the hysterically annoying Go Compare man you can’t seem to escape.

Essentially, we get paid to write down ideas. Concepts. Brand things. We give them names, play them like puppets, make sure they say the right stuff to the right people. We present complex things in their simplest form, give simple things semantic significance, and create interest where there is otherwise none. We write adverts that make you laugh, cry, or generally just annoy you so much that you can’t forget them even if you try. (Still looking at you, Go Compare.)

Digital blurred the lines because it amplified exactly what copy was. It was no longer something finite for print or broadcast — it was an unfillable void. The rise of digital and social caused clients to start ordering words, for the sake of words, in overwhelming quantities — and agencies had no idea what to do except throw their copywriters at it and hope they didn’t sink.

The problem is, there’s a stark difference between writing the concept for an entire brand campaign and writing “Top 10 Tips for SEO Marketing” clickbait articles. Yet often, they are written by the same person. And herein lies the debate: Are you a copywriter, or a content writer?

Digital blurred the lines because it amplified exactly what copy was. It was no longer something finite for print or broadcast — it was an unfillable void.

Realistically, if you can’t do the latter, you shouldn’t be doing the former. But as most writers know, you’re usually better at one than the other. Or you’re unusually good at both, but you absolutely loathe one and love the other. Either way, there’s imbalance.

Fortunately, content-specific agencies are on the rise, as well as social-specific agencies. Arguably, as an industry, we are getting better at making the distinction. As content specialists and social executives increase in number, copywriters are slowly going back to what they do best: making you want things.

I witness a lot of traditional admen slagging off social media. Even if they’re not outright slating it, they sneer at it. Truth be told, I see their points, but as far as I can tell social is taking its final form: just another medium for traditional advertising, executed (slightly) differently.

The best copywriting, the best social media, and the best “content” will, above all else, come from a great idea. A big idea that manipulates behaviour. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about engagement rates and clicks and promise-filled-storydoing lies, but when it comes down to it we know as much about a social post as we know about a billboard. They both head out into the world with an equal chance of changing what a person does that day.

Luckily, my early dabbles in entrepreneurship led me to develop two very important copy skills:

  1. Making my point in 140 characters or less.
  2. Grabbing attention.

I had an awful lot to learn when I took the job — and I still have an unquantifiable amount of learning left to do. When I look back, however, I can see that being a social guinea pig gave me an upper hand on all the junior copy executives out there who were training to do my exact job. Learning is doing, I suppose — and if you want to learn really fast? Do it in front of a live audience…who can complain. Often. And repeatedly.

Despite my social rearing, my heart is in copywriting, which seems to surprise many. Copywriters and social/content executives often remind me of the Gallagher brothers. They look similar but act differently, sound similar but say opposing things, work for the same purpose via two completely different methods — and often, they fucking hate each other.

Copywriting and content writing are two completely different things. In fact, in my opinion, digital has been a bastard for copywriters everywhere.

Me? Well, I’m weird, because I’m both Liam and Noel at the exact same time — and I’m sure that’s the case for other advertising copywriters my age. Being a millennial (*dramatic gasp*) seems to make others assume I’m not interested in anything that doesn’t involve one of the following words: content, storydoing (??), clickable, content, engaging, influencer, or (for ultimate social bingo) shareable.

It’s quite the opposite, actually. Yes, I’m open to all of those things if — and this is a big if — they stem from a great idea. I’d rather write the concept for an ad campaign than a tweet, and mercy, I’d rather write the entire bloody website from beginning to end than “write some blog content for the website”/ “about what?”/ “anything”.

I’ve got to hand it to social. Despite its annoying, hipster issues, it taught me how to write copy before I even knew what copy was. As the industry marches forward with increasingly blurred lines, I’m glad — and probably lucky — I can do both.

Clare Barry (www.copyclare.com) is a senior conceptual copywriter at Liquid. This article first appeared here.


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